Joshua Reynolds is one of the most famous British painters of all time. Dedicated and known for his portraits, Reynolds was a founder of the Royal Academy and its first president. Along with William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds gave internal acclaim for British art. The oeuvre of Sir Joshua Reynolds manifests the ideals of civic humanism, of the public, and the social role of painting. A close friend of the philosopher Edmund Burke, Reynolds was also an active writer and proposed a metaphysical perspective on his works and art.
Joshua Reynolds was born in July 1723, in the city of Plympton, English county of Devon, and was the third son of a reverend. Among his siblings are notable women like Elizabeth Johnson and the acclaimed writer Mary Palmer, author of Devonshire Dialogue. Mary was seven years older than Joshua and was very fond of drawing, which certainly influenced him as a boy. She even helped finance Joshua's pupilage under Thomas Hudson. The artist's sister also funded his studies in Italy.
As a boy, he was influenced by Zachariah Mudge, a clergyman whose his views on philosophy affected the young artist. Reynolds became very interested in Platonist philosophy. Plato understood that the material world was of lesser quality than the world of forms. This became an essential reference to him throughout his life, significantly affecting his writing.
Among his influences, evidenced by his commonplace book, are William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Richard Steele, André Félibien, and Leonardo da Vinci. Still, a significant influence was An Essay on Theory of Painting, by Jonathan Richardson.
At age 17, he became Thomas Hudson's apprentice, in London, for four years. Hudson's major influences was a collection of drawings by old masters, which Reynolds had to copy and study. Reynolds left Hudson in the summer of 1743, moving to Plymouth Dock, now the city of Davenport. There he worked as a portrait painter for a brief time and returned to London by the end of 1744.
Reynolds was invited to join the HMS Centurion ship, under the command of Commodore Augustus Keppel. After visiting Algiers, Cadiz, and Lisbon, he disembarked in Minorca. From Spain, Reynolds traveled to Livorno and then Rome, where he stayed for two years, studying the work of the old masters.
Leaving Rome, Reynolds began making his way back to London, passing through Venice, Bologna, Florence, and Paris. He had Giuseppe Marchi as his assistant, who accompanied him for most of this journey, and remained his assistant till the end of his life.
Upon his arrival back to England in 1752, he established himself in London. Reynolds was very prolific and achieved recognition rapidly. As a result of his fame as a portrait painter, Joshua Reynolds often enjoyed the circles of the wealthy and distinguished men and women of the time. He worked portraying many noblemen, which gave him a good income. This was facilitated through Lord Edgcumbe, who knew the painter since he was a child.
In 1760, he moved to the area known today as Leicester. The artist bought a big house, in which he shared with his assistants. Since Reynolds' work expressed thoroughly the philosophic ideals circulating in London's higher circles, the painter was quite requested among the aristocracy. In certain periods, he received circa six clients a day. They would sit for him for around an hour. Reynolds painted his features while his assistants finished the clothes.
Even though the artist is famous for his portraits, he also made incredible landscapes. Aside from his work with political figures and aristocrats, he portrayed many children in a very delicate manner, possibly trying to manifest the sweetness of his subjects. Country scenes were quite common at the time, made popular by Thomas Gainsborough's work, and were often explored by Reynolds in a combination of landscape and portrait.
Reynolds was highly intellectual and nurtured many friendships among the erudite English elite. Throughout his life, the painter wrote about art and other subjects. His perspective can be found in the book Discourses on Art, a compendium of talks he gave during his life. Reynolds was one of the founders of The Club, a literary association of intellectuals, also known as Literary Club, along with Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, the distinguished statesman and philosopher. Johnson and Reynolds met every Monday and had supper together while debating.
Reynolds became a highly distinguished and essential member of the English art society. He was one of the first members of the Royal Society of Arts, as well as one of the founders of the Society of Artists of Great Britain. In 1768, Reynolds became the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts. The following year the artist was knighted by King George III, becoming the second artist ever to receive such an honor.
Curiously enough, Reynolds had a grudge towards the King. When the official painter of the court died, Gainsborough intended to try for the post. But Reynolds ransomed his way through, stating he would leave the Royal Academy if he weren't assigned to the position. Ironically, after gaining the title, he regretted it. Through correspondence, the artist indirectly spoke about the King being "not worth talking about" and complained about his wage.
Reynolds retired from painting after losing the sight of his left eye. He ultimately had to remove his eye, which left him deeply sad. The artist became severely ill on New Years Day of 1792.
Sir Joshua Reynolds passed away in his house on 23 February 1792. Edmund Burke was with him on this day, and right after Reynolds passed away, the philosopher wrote an obituary, highly praising him as one of the most remarkable men he ever met.
"Be as select in those whom you endeavor to please, as in those whom you endeavor to imitate. Without the love of fame, you can never do anything excellent."
- Joshua Reynolds